Child labour, still a common practice in large parts of rural India

Friday, November 19, 2010

KUTCH - In a small pastoral vand (hamlet) in Kutch, Gujarat, 10 year old Ramu wakes up at five in the morning. His mother serves him a hasty breakfast of bajra rotis after which he is packed off to the pasturelands surrounding their small hamlet to graze the family’s buffaloes. Since his village does not have a working school, grazing the livestock is gainful employment from the point of view of Ramu’s father.

Ramu’s father himself grew up grazing cattle, a family occupation for the Rabaris, a tribal community wandering across the region with their herds of cattle for their livelihood. He sees nothing wrong in sending the boy to graze cattle since there are no alternatives for growing children in his village.

What bothers him is the future he foresees, of the boy growing up exactly like himself: barely surviving as a grazer in the region’s harsh, droughty climate, without access to any safety nets such as Public Distribution System shops, schools or health centers.

For the past quarter of a century since India first banned Child Labour in hazardous work, the country still holds the record for the largest child employer in the world. Although the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act barred children from work such as making firecrackers and this was made more stringent by a subsequent amendment in 2006 which barred children from domestic work, children like Ramu, engaged in agriculture and allied work continue to fall through the cracks.

Today 60% of the country’s estimated child labourers are from agriculture and allied fields, such as cattle grazing. They do not earn money. They do not go to school. They are simply pulled into the family’s subsistence-level agricultural and livestock rearing practices.

Government estimates show that the agricultural sector employs 68.4% of India’s 17 million child labourers. The growth of child labour in India is well ensured by a potent combination of growing poverty, adult unemployment and/or underemployment and a lack of basic services such as anganwadis and schools.

But child labour as a reality is not an exclusively third world phenomenon. Agriculture the world over relies on working children. America, the supposed haven of individual freedom, also faces the same grim reality. Fields of Peril (Human Rights Watch, May 2010), a report on child labour in the US flags America as home to hundreds of thousands of child farm workers.

In a fate similar to that of their Indian counterparts, American child labourers also work long hours for below minimum wages. All in clear denial of the child’s right to develop and grow in a protected environment, mentally through education and physically through nutrition.

The Human Rights Watch Report identifies a large loophole in the American child labour laws (American Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)) that allows children over 12 years of age to be hired for farm work with parental consent (those above 14 can work without any permission). What this means is that America allows its citizens to begin farm work while they are still children.

Children from impoverished families work unregulated number of hours, in dangerous conditions, for lower than the minimum wage to contribute their bit to the family income. The report cites the contribution of over 132 million girls and boys aged 5 to 14 years working in crop, livestock, fisheries and forestry industry. This means that in parts American food, clothing and shelter industries carry with them the shame of child labour.

The Indian combat against child labour is debilitated by a loophole. The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act makes it illegal to employ children in specific occupations and processes which could be hazardous. This list is being expanded progressively based on the recommendations of the Child Labour Technical Advisory Committee constituted under the Act. But for the 25 years that it has been in existence, the law has failed to include agriculture work in the list of banned occupations.

Need for a Comprehensive Policy

To weed out children from agricultural work, the best way is to work together with the village community and the government to first, delineate the destructive impact of child labour on a child’s present and future entitlements, and from there establish stronger practices to make sure each child can access all of her /his rights. The overall thrust should be on comprehensive policies and effective implementation of existing laws.

Our world has 215 million Ramus, in various stages of rights denial. 1.2 million children are trafficked, 5.7 million are forced into forms of slavery, 1.8 millions are forced into prostitution/pornography and 30,000 are recruited as child soldiers in armed conflict (ILO report). “The myth that it is okay for children to work as long as the occupation is not directly ‘dangerous’ completely misses the point,” rues CRY’s Dipankar Majumder.

“Any work is detrimental and therefore dangerous from a rights perspective. A child who is out of formal education is doomed to be trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and marginalisation, from which she or he is unlikely to break out of even as an adult.

Besides, in India, the country’s largest nutrition programme piggybacks on schools and anganwadis. So a child out of school will not get access to the daily midday meal either, a severe dampener on the country’s attempt to eradicate hunger and malnourishment.”

Majumdar’s organisation, CRY, collaborates with its local partners to work alongside local government authorities to open and improve quality of schools and to improve rural livelihoods, which directly result in prevention of child labour. In recent years, the National Commission for Protection of Children’s Rights has taken a few strategic steps to make a noise about children working as a clear no-no, even in so-called hi-glamour sectors such as entertainment. The organisation took a public call this year to call for ending child labour in agriculture too.

Breaking common myths about child labour is crucial. The distinction between hazardous and non-hazardous blurs when the child is forced into employment. Thus all work is hazardous for a child. Another premise is about ‘rescuing’ the child. Most child rights workers believe that rescue without rehabilitation is a pointless exercise.

What is required is a wholesome system where there are bridge courses to even out years of lost schooling; quality free government schools; a strong backup in health services; adequate employment and housing for adults.

The road ahead seems fraught with obstacles says the columnist writing for the Charkha Features. Salvaging the childhood of the many Ramus in India and the world from the shackles of child labour seems a distant possibility. To make it real, we need to begin with the law, backed by a serious level community involvement to ensure all these children do not remain blossoms in the dust. By Bidisha Fouzdar (ANI)

Filed under: India

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